Back in March, Mark Waid and Humberto Ramos ended their eighteen issue run on Champions, the team they introduced in 2016. Consisting of Ms. Marvel, Spider-Man, Nova, Viv Vision, the Hulk, and Cyclops, these teens united with the very real belief they could make the world better. While adult superheroes tend to spend all their time with things like supervillains, monsters, alien invasions, and stupid/senseless/pointless Civil Wars, these kids sought to tackle real issues, believing in their potential to fix things and inspire others to do the same in the process. This run was one of the most important things Marvel’s produced of late, a story that speaks to their youthful readers while reminding us older ones what’s worth fighting for by showing us what real heroes do.
It was providential that Waid and Ramos’s final issue of Champions was released on the heels of the March For Our Lives in Washington D.C. (with many sister marches occurring all around the country). The Champions modelled in their comic what the Parkland students are embodying in real life. The world is broken. Adults – by and large – are doing nothing but talking and actively making it worse with our participation or apathetic inaction. So, if change is to happen, it has to come with the youth. Often, as we grow up we grow complacent, allowing the systemic sin in the world around us to continue to thrive. This idea was the genesis of Champions.
This fire of youth doesn’t only see injustice clearly – while having the bravery to call evil evil – it also believes in the potential to set right these wrongs. There is a reason, when speaking of the Messianic Age of peace and justice to come, the prophet Isaiah proclaims, “Justice shall be the band around his waist and faithfulness a belt upon his hips. Then the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat; the calf and the young lion shall browse together, with a little child to guide them” (11:5-16). Or Jesus, when speaking of the Kingdom of God, proclaims, “Let the little children come to me and do not prevent them; for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Amen I say to you, whoever does not accept the kingdom of God like a child will not enter it” (Luke 18:16-17). The message is clear. If we want to do the work of God, to build the just society God wills for our world, we need to let the youth lead us.
Over the course of their run, Waid and Ramos have seen the Champions rescue three miners trapped in a collapsed mine in the hills of Bartlesberg, Kentucky and free potential victims of human traffickers (issue #1); help Islamic women and children who were standing up to radicalized terrorists for their rights in the South Asian country of Sharzad while also clearly stating those who use religion to justify oppression are using it incorrectly (issue #3); tried to inspire people to stand up to and speak out against a newly elected sheriff in Daly County whose hateful rhetoric and divisive campaign inspired a rise in hate crimes including mosque fires, harassment and abuse of the LGBTQ+ community, gun violence, as well as antisemitism and racism in the form of swastikas outside the local temple and a noose in front of the black church (issue #5); wrestle with a corporate group called the Freelancers who were put out to sully the reputation of the Champions by merchandizing their name and protecting those who rape the environment or harass the homeless in the name of corporate development (issues #6-8); free kidnapped runaways who were being forced to manufacture drugs (issue #9); as well as save a group of people trying to cross the US/Mexican border who were being extorted by coyotes as they tried to enter the country (issue #16).
Sure, over the course of their run the Champions also did some “normal” superhero things. They stood against the Secret Empire and worked to help bring it down (issues #10-11). They had the obligatory hero-vs-hero thing when they battled the Avengers before doing the equally obligatory team-up thing as they joined forces to battle the High Evolutionary (issues #13-15). But this was never their focus. This wasn’t their purpose. They aspired to something more.
As you can guess, this resulted in a lot of today’s tired SJW criticisms being leveled at both the comic itself as well as Waid and Ramos. There’s a certain brand of people out there who love to toss this term around in a condescending way because they legitimately think being a social justice warrior is a bad thing. And, while I will grant we live in an age of meaningless hashtag activism (where all we do is post/pin/tweet about an issue for a day until we move on to something else) and I grant there are plenty of people who rally for or against causes in conversation but never do anything about them in real life…to think fighting for social justice is in some way wrong says much more about the character of the person using “SJW” as an insult than it does the person they are trying to insult. To be blunt, if you think standing for equality and justice while standing against hatred, fascism, racism, sexism, militarism, and a punitive attitude towards the poor (to name but a few examples) is a) a bad thing and b) deserving of ridicule, then you’re on the wrong side of history.
Even though this has been a problem since the Agrarian Revolution, it still always strikes me as odd that this is a discussion. How do you argue against equality and justice? Especially from a Christian standpoint, Jesus is pretty clear in the Gospel of Matthew when, speaking of the Judgment of the Nations, he says, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit upon his glorious throne, and all the nations will be assembled before him. And he will separate them one from another, as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will place the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father. Inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, a stranger and you welcomed me, naked and you clothed me, ill and you cared for me, in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous* will answer him and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you ill or in prison, and visit you?’ And the king will say to them in reply, ‘Amen, I say to you, whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me.’ Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you accursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, a stranger and you gave me no welcome, naked and you gave me no clothing, ill and in prison, and you did not care for me.’ Then they will answer and say, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison, and not minister to your needs?’ He will answer them, ‘Amen, I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me.’ And these will go off to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life” (25:31-46).
To throw the idea of social justice around like it’s a dirty word – especially if you consider yourself Christian (or, for that matter, Jewish or Muslim or Hindu or Buddhist because those faiths all have similar teachings from their central prophet/vision of the Divine) – doesn’t just put you on the wrong side of history but on the wrong side of God. As the above passage states, to stand against these sorts of things is of the devil. I’ve always found it as troubling as it is ironic that so many people will call themselves Christian and profess the belief that Jesus is not only the Christ but God incarnate…and then ignore everything he said. I grant, I’m not perfect here myself. That’s why I’ve always appreciated that line from “Go Tell It On The Mountain” where you sing, “If I am a Christian, I am the least of all.” It resonates. And that’s why I’ve always found Nietzsche’s 38th Aphorism in The Antichrist particularly challenging, “there was only one Christian, and he died on the cross.” The truth in that line stings as it justly calls me out. I know I’m not doing all I should. But I’m not going to pretend I don’t know what I should be doing or that Jesus preached something different than what he actually said.
This is the beautiful thing about Champions. It takes these ideas – the quest for social justice for everyone the world over – and makes it the center of the narrative…just as it should be the center of our lives. What you do to the least among you, you do to me. It frequently reminds us that the world is broken and the world still needs heroes. Then it shows these kids getting involved in causes WE CAN CHAMPION TOO. The world is broken. The world still need heroes. So what are we going to do?
Take a moment to look at the news. We have more than enough moral outrages, more than enough monstrous evil for us to take a stand against. It seems everywhere we look, sin is reigning. We are living in a time where since early May 2,342 children have been separated from their families while crossing the Southern U.S. border as part of a new Trump Administration immigration policy. When you run the numbers, this averages out to sixty-five children being separated from their parents each day, a sickening rise from the already monstrous average of forty-six children taken from their parents a day back in April. This is for real. This is happening. Those numbers are confirmed by the Department of Homeland Security. The policy was put into effect in April by Attorney General Jeff Sessions. He ordered prosecutors to use a “zero tolerance” policy for people coming across the border illegally, mandating all children be taken from their parents in the hopes that breaking up these families and putting these children in detention centers will be a “deterrent” for people attempting to come into this country. This is actually happening.
The fact that this administration and our Congress is allowing this to happen, the fact that people are “just doing their job” and actively detaining these children, is something they will carry on their souls. But the fact that the rest of us aren’t doing more to make this stop is on our souls. What you do to or for the least among you, you do to or for me. Sadly, this is just one example of so much systemic evil we allow to grow around us every day. If it doesn’t affect us, if we can profit from it, if our personal biases or prejudices support this…we let it play out. But we need to be better. The world is broken. The world still needs heroes.
The majority of the students I teach understand this. Every year I see them come alive when we discuss Catholic Social Teaching of the Sisters of Mercy’s Critical Concerns in class. The Parkland students understand this. This is why Champions can speak so clearly to its youthful readers. They understand what the Champions are calling for. They see the same injustices in the world and feel the fire of the same righteous anger. This is also why Champions is a title adult readers need as a fun, colorful thorn-in-the-side reminding us we aren’t doing enough. Because, honestly, what are we, as adults, doing? Are we any better than the Avengers? Or are we too just making the mess worse with our apathy (at best) or complicit support (at worst)? And do we have the courage to follow the Champions lead? Do we have the courage to follow the prophetic call of the youth around us?
With issue #19, Jim Zub and Sean Izaakse have taken the creative reins of Champions. In an interview with CBR.com, Jim Zub said, “I’m also adding in classic superhero-y subplots bubbling under the surface that will pay off later on. My goal is to channel the kinds of things I loved about teen books like New Mutants, Generation-X, or the New Warriors and bring it into our modern world with lots of surprises.” Only time will tell if that includes honoring the vision, purpose, and message Mark Waid and Humberto Ramos gave this book. But, regardless of what Zub and Izaakse’s run will produce, nothing can change how those first eighteen issues challenged us nor what their final message was:
Yes, we can forget this call and move on to “regular” superhero books, letting Champions fade like an uncomfortable memory. But we forget at our own peril, forsaking the call of God in the process. Kamala’s final words in that issue (as well as Mark Waid and Humberto Ramos’s final message with the title) echo John Lennon’s iconic words in “Working Class Hero” – “If you want to be a hero, then just follow me.” Lennon was right. And, looking at the path the Champions blazed and the issues they confronted over Waid and Ramos’s run, Kamala’s right too. In this age of uncertainty and fear, of evil and justification, of normalization and apathy…well, if we want to be heroes, then just follow them.